The Lockheed Martin F-35 is finally on track after numerous technical issues, long delays and large cost increases. Daniel Conroy, LM’s F-35 Director asserts: “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel.” This is good news for those awaiting aircraft delivery but also signals it is time to take stock of where the F-35 ‘tunnel’ has taken defence aviation and airpower more generally.

In many respects it seems the fanboys and the critics are both right: the aircraft does impressively what it was designed to do but is that now what needs to be done?

What does the F-35 do?

The F-35 program began as the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. For the USAF, the dominant player in the program, the F-35 was primarily meant to replace the 1970s designed F-16 fighter. Back then, the need was for a low-cost lightweight dogfighter to shoot down the many thousands of Soviet fighters expected to be encountered over Western Germany during a Third World War. Accordingly, the F-16 entered USAF service as a highly manoeuvrable, high thrust to weight aircraft armed with a gun and a couple of short range infrared missiles, and able to be affordably churned out in the thousands to match the Soviet hordes.

The 1990s design drivers for the F-35 as the F-16 replacement were very different, indeed, almost a mirror image. Post-Cold War, the USSR’s large numbers of air defence fighters had vanished. American air superiority was almost a given in any conflict, being only now challenged by a small number of surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. The strategic drivers of force development were now being able to intervene in failing states at low cost and inflicting low collateral damage.

To read the full “F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – Just another fighter bomber” article by Griffith Asia Institute Visiting Fellow Peter Layton, please visit Australian Air Power.